Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism

By Joseph Puckett

Ilya Glazunov, Alyosha Karamazov, 1982

Dr. Paul Contino, Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University, joined Miami’s academic community on Monday, October 4, for a lecture based on his new book, Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism. Contino’s lecture was the second in this year’s Havighurst Center Colloquium, which is focused on the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky in honor of the iconic Russian’s 200th birthday. Contino carried forth the momentum of John Givens’s previous lecture, offering students an opposing perspective on the core themes of The Brothers Karamazov. Whereas Givens’ lecture argued for Ivan Karamazov’s centrality to the novel, Contino restored his brother Alyosha to hero status through a soulful and insightful reading. Contino focused his lecture on Book Seven, where Dostoevsky responds to Ivan’s rebellion in “oblique and artistic terms.”

            Contino’s interpretation of incarnational realism was explained by unpacking Book Seven’s arc, from Alyosha’s disappointments surrounding Father Zosima’s death to his ecstatic embrace of a resolved world. Alyosha’s brief but transformative rebellion and subsequent restoration to faith develops the young man into “a monk in the world.” This stage of the novel sows the seed of prudence in Alyosha’s overly-sincere heart, which he had heretofore lacked, thus enabling Alyosha to grow beyond his pure spirituality into a man of integrated faith and reason, one capable of providing ministry to the characters struggling throughout the novel’s second half.

            Contino framed this argument by displaying the icon of Christ developed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The asymmetry of Christ’s eyes, one human and judgmental and the other divine and forgiving, was interpreted as representing both the relief from a burden and the imposition of an obligation. To utilize Contino’s “linguistic key” to the novel, the relief is Christ’s forgiveness of sin and the burden imposed is the duty to take personal responsibility for the sins of all of humanity. This is the heart of incarnational realism: the apprehension of reality and response to reality through the light of faith in Christ. Contino’s interpretation is avowedly religious and can be summarized as: you should take responsibility for everyone, because everything is infinite and we are finite, and regardless of whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, you might agree that the icon of Christ is the most complete resolution to this paradox, because Christ represents a human being who is both finite and infinite. The lecture having been successfully framed, Contino moved to interpret Book Seven.

            In the novel, the failure of Zosima’s corpse to produce a miracle disappoints Alyosha and ultimately educates his faith through irony. Alyosha is a realist in his faith. He grounds it not in miracle but in spiritual emotion. However, he expects divine justice for Zosima’s corpse in the form of a miracle. Zosima’s rapid decomposition leads to Alyosha’s rebellion. He is egged on by Ratikin, who embodies reductive irony. Alyosha, in falling to Ratikin’s temptations, seeks to hurt himself in order to rebel against God.

            At Grushenka’s, there is more irony in the reversal of roles between Grushenka and Alyosha. Grushenka expects to meet an innocent monk only to find him corrupted by reductive irony. Alyosha expects to meet a fallen woman but finds a kindness and “warmness” in her face. Grushenka nestles on Alyosha’s lap, which has often been interpreted in artistic renditions as a seductive attempt. However, Contino believes this is a reductive misinterpretation of Grushenka’s actions, claiming instead that she actually resembles the Madonna. By nestling on Alyosha’s lap, she somehow cures his fear of eros without seducing him whatsoever. Thus, the eros and agape within Alyosha becomes unified into caritas, and matures the young monk. This is especially significant in the context of a novel where the titular brothers all lack a mother, none feeling this absence more powerfully than Alyosha. Where he was once naïve–for instance, in his spontaneous attempt to marry Katerina and Ivan–he has now learned prudence.  The irony of defied expectations simultaneously pushes both Grushenka and Alyosha to acknowledgement of their own faults. To phrase this event in the novel’s context, Alyosha and Grushenka give each other onions. In this sense, Grushenka has also resembled Dante’s Beatrice for having, “raised my [Alyosha’s] soul from the depths.”

Ilya Glazunov, Grushenka, 1982.

            Returned to the monastery having learned prudence and solertia (the strength to adapt to life’s unexpected ironies), Alyosha timidly enters the chamber where Zosima’s corpse still lays and falls to his knees in prayer. The “slow and calm rotation” of his soul mirrors the rotational imagery of Dante’s soul after Dante views God in “Paradiso” and then begins the process of writing The Divine Comedy. This allusion reveals Dostoevsky’s affinity for Dante as well as the spiritual significance of Alyosha’s vision of Zosima’s resurrection in Cana. Then finally, in Contino’s words, “the symphonic chapter reaches its final movement.” The divine images of the starry August night and feminine earth, which Alyosha embraces and kisses in a display of newfound eros, surround him as he has comes to embody incarnational realism, the God-man, who actualizes not only the gifts of Zosima and Christ, but also their commands.

            Contino’s lecture not only opened the minds of those attending, it also successfully refuted scholars such as W.J. Leatherbarrow who have claimed that Dostoevsky failed in Book Seven to adequately respond to Ivan’s rebellion.

Joseph Puckett is majoring in History and English Literature at Miami.

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